For Whom the Bell Tolls Introduction
In A Nutshell
Ernest Hemingway's 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a classic war romance (that's a war drama and a romance, in one). Set in the mountains of Spain in 1937, it tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American fighting for the Republicans (that's one side of the Spanish Civil War, not the American political party) who is ordered to blow up a bridge as part of a larger offensive. To help him with his mission, he has to work with a colorful group of local guerillas, one of whom he falls in love with.
A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into this book, and we mean literally. It's actually grounded in, and informed by, Hemingway's own visits to war-torn Spain as a journalist and film production assistant in 1937 and 1938. He himself called the book "the most important thing I've ever done," though, admittedly, that was in 1939, before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Old Man and the Sea.
The critics seemed to agree with his good assessment back then in 1940, or at least most of them. There was a widespread sense that Hemingway was "back," after taking rather too long of a vacation from noteworthy writing since his first two breakout successes, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. For Whom the Bell Tolls was affirmed as "the great novel of the Spanish Civil War." It was the biggest seller in American fiction since Gone With the Wind as of 1943, and to date it still appears to be Hemingway's best-selling book. When released, For Whom the Bell Tolls shot immediately to the top, or near the top, of various "Best of" lists, whether it be best of the decade, best American books, or best novels, period.
But not everyone was so wild about it. In fact, violent controversy erupted around the book right after its publication. Much of this was political, as the environment at the time (remember, this was during WWII) was politically charged, to say the least. In one case, this cost Hemingway big time: the book was denied the Pulitzer Prize by Columbia University's president (he sided with the fascists), even though Hemingway's novel was unanimously voted the winner by the prize board. Result: no award for 1941.
Nowadays, other kinds of controversy surround the book. Some find Hemingway's depiction of the Spanish too unfair and inaccurate. More widespread is a debate about the book's realism: though the book seems very well-researched, and Hemingway's sketch of the setting appears meticulous, the episode around which the book revolves is made-up, and some claim it is difficult to see just how far Hemingway's "imagination" extends. Controversy or not, though, the novel does appear to have stood the test of time as the novel about the Spanish Civil War.
P.S. It's hard to read, or talk about, the book without a passing knowledge of the Spanish Civil War itself. So that's why we've we recommend you check out this University of Illinois website on the Spanish Civil War.
Why Should I Care?
You've got something really important in common with Robert Jordan: other people. That's right, this is really a book about the importance of other people.
How dare you suggest something so basic? you may ask, looking up from the Jean-Paul Sartre book you're reading alone in bed. Sartre said, "Hell is other people."
Well, it's true other people can certainly be "hell" (imagine living with Comrade Marty for a week!). But Mr. Hemingway would like to remind you that, in many respects, other people can be a bit of heaven too – in fact, they're the only thing that can be.
"No Man is an Iland," as you'll find in the epigraph of this book. If we don't have other people, we're missing a lot. According to For Whom the Bell Tolls, it's by forming bonds with and depending on other people that we actually come to value ourselves as individuals, and arrive at a life we want to keep rather than throw away.
Beyond that, the book does have a bit to say about war: it is always hell (and can make other people a lot worse than they were before). It's not so good on those relationships with other people we were just raving about. And it happens to give free rein, even thrive on, those nastier bits of human nature we'd kind of like to forget were there – like bloodlust.
Might war be necessary? Hemingway says yes, very much so. But the decision to go to war can only be made, or appreciated, if you're aware of its cost.